Sunday, January 27, 2013
Kansas vs. Michigan: There can be only one
By Eamonn Brennan
With Ben McLemore leading the Jayhawks on a 17-game winning streak and Trey Burke's Wolverines boasting the best offense in the country, both Kansas and Michigan can claim to be No. 1.
After two-plus months of college basketball, we've reached a bewildering, thrilling, and altogether unusual point in the season: We don't know who the best team in the country really is.
Is it Duke with Ryan Kelly? The uber-efficient Florida Gators? The smooth-operating Michigan Wolverines? What about those imperfect but animating Indiana Hoosiers? If Louisville plays its best defense, who is tougher to beat than the Cardinals? And then there's Syracuse, which won at Louisville just last week, and Kansas, which hasn't lost since November.
Which of these teams is obviously better than the rest? Trick question: none of them. For the past two weeks, we've been arguing back and forth about who deserves to be called the "best" team in the country, but the truth is there isn't just one. There are, it appears, seven -- the aforementioned seven. You could ask two intelligent basketball people to order that group, come back with totally opposite results, and neither would be wrong.
Which is all well and good, of course, but on Monday afternoon The Associated Press is going to release its latest poll, and it's not going to list a seven-way tie for the No. 1 spot with a cheeky .gif of someone shrugging. (Though that would be awesome.) Someone is going to be ranked No. 1, and that someone is going to be either Kansas or Michigan.
Here are the respective cases for both.
Why Kansas should be No. 1: Because they haven't lost since the first week of the season. I'm not wild about the poll-voting tendency to weigh recent losses more heavily than those from weeks ago. At least at this point of the season, it can obscure the larger data set in favor of a handful of games. But, you know what? I'm sorry, Kansas' record is legitimately impressive.
After all, the Jayhawks lost their only game of the season on Nov. 13, when they fell 67-64 to Michigan State in Atlanta. Even then, it was hard to penalize Bill Self's team perception-wise. We all knew they'd be good, and they are. Self's team plays the third-best efficiency defense in the country, per KenPom.com. The Jayhawks hold opposing scorers to the lowest two-point field goal percentage -- just 37.0 percent -- in the country, thanks in large part to the shot-blocking prowess of center Jeff Withey. On offense, the Jayhawks are not quite as dominant, but they do feature redshirt freshman guard Ben McLemore, who has blown up any and all of the already high offseason expectations about his evolution into stardom. McLemore could well play his way to the No. 1 overall pick in this summer's NBA draft, and he can score against college defenses at will.
With their two stars and a host of secondary players gelling seamlessly, since November the Jayhawks have rattled off 17 straight wins. This streak includes a road trip to Ohio State, as well as big-time challenges from Temple and Iowa State and back-to-back wins at Texas and Kansas State last week. They haven't gotten to that top spot yet this season for a few reasons: sheer timing, schedule quirks and a down Big 12 among them. But their case is just as good, if not better, than anyone else the voters could plausibly pick Monday afternoon.
Why Michigan should be No. 1: When we say rankings don't matter, we're right -- they don't really have any bearing on the season at hand. But they do matter in less definable ways, particularly to fans, and it's easy to forget why. In Michigan's case, it's because just five years ago John Beilein's program looked like a lost cause. Three years ago, as the Wolverines clawed through a bitter and tumultuous 15-17 season, there was absolutely zero reason to expect Michigan to be a Big Ten, let alone a national, title contender anytime soon. As Beilein said after Michigan's win at Illinois Sunday night, for fans, a No. 1 ranking would be a sign of how far the Wolverines have come. How all the nonsense they had to endure for more than a decade is finally, mercifully behind them.
The Wolverines could have been the last unbeaten team in the country had they found a way to overcome Ohio State in Columbus two Sundays ago, but their brutally cold start led to a 56-53 loss and robbed them of the chance to be the No. 1 team in the country. The good news? They deserve it just as much as anyone else discussed above, Kansas included.
On a per-possession (or really any other) basis, Michigan's offense is the best in the country. The Wolverines have scored 1.21 points per possession overall this season, and in seven Big Ten games they've hardly slowed down (1.20). Thanks to point guard and player of the year candidate (frontrunner?) Trey Burke, the Wolverines have the second-lowest turnover rate in the country as of this writing. Thanks to Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas, and the rest of this lineup, the Wolverines convert all of those Burke-crafted possessions into points more often than not. Even with a defense that lags just behind where you'd ideally like to see a national title contender, the Wolverines have already compiled an impressive array of wins -- last week's win at Minnesota and Sunday's win at Illinois chief among them.
If you wanted to get really pedantic about it, you could argue that Kansas's win at Ohio State -- something the Wolverines weren't able to accomplish in Big Ten play -- gives the Jayhawks the edge. Or maybe you just prefer teams who haven't lost recently. You could also argue that you think Michigan is just plain better. Either argument is OK with me.
The point is, for as exciting as this season is shaping up to be for the rest of us, and for as exciting as it already has been, AP voters must be equally thrilled this week. After all, no matter who they pick to be No. 1, they can't go wrong.